On Chesil Beach (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Sometimes love is not enough. I admired the ferocity of this picture because it begins like a generic romantic drama where newlyweds spend their honeymoon on a hotel by the beach. Their backgrounds, when together and apart, are told in flashbacks, carefully calibrated by director Dominic Cooke. A comic moment here and a touching moment there—yet every time we look into the past, he provides just enough detail to keep us wanting to know more. All the while there is a growing suspicion that he isn’t telling us everything, especially when close-ups become more dominant as the couple start to consummate their marriage.
The couple is played by Saoirse Ronan and Billy Howle who share an awkward but interesting chemistry—which makes for a fascinating watch. Florence and Edward’s moments of warmth are certain to make the audience feel good, but perhaps more powerful, and more intriguing, are instances when they fall into intense arguments, one culminating at the beach which involves a devastating confession and a life-changing decision. In particular, Ronan is at her element here as she is able to change the shape of her face depending on the emotion the scene is about to lay out before us, further proof she is one of the greatest performers of her generation.
But the centerpiece of this slow-moving but most surprising picture is the screenplay by Ian McEwan. He is not interested in creating a boring, picture-perfect couple only to be regarded or envied from afar (or through the screen). Instead, he allows the subjects to be human, flawed, by daring to open up the dialogue toward extremely hurtful situations. They are allowed to be petty, to deliver blows so low that at times we feel ashamed for them. This couple, like real-life couples, is able to use words like daggers and actions like explosives. Because of their sheer chemistry, we wish for them to be together, to work through their problems somehow, to push blame and anger to the side, to start anew. Because the material ultimately makes us feel this way, that is what makes it a romance, not necessary through the lens of the story—or type of story—presented.
Perhaps its weakest portion is the jump in time to 2007. (The story begins in 1962.) Instead of casting age-appropriate actors, it becomes another example of a drama that suffers from ridiculous cosmetics. It is so bizarre when we see heavy makeup on a face (which is unconvincing in the first place) and yet we look down on the actors’ hands only to recognize youth. When I noticed this common mistake, I felt angry because I taken out of a film that I found myself to be emotionally invested for the most part. Overlooking details like the hands being flawless, not having a single age-related spot, is such an amateur mistake. Do not get me started on how the ace performers are so buried in cosmetics that they find themselves unable to control their facial expressions. Even the eyes do not look old or experienced.
“On Chesil Beach” is based on the novella by Ian McEwan. It helps that the creator of the original work is also the screenwriter because it feels as though not a thing is filtered upon its translation from text to screen. Especially interesting is the theme regarding ignorance, how at times such ignorance is actually motivated by societal norms of a specific time period, what is expected of a certain sex, of how a married couple ought to live together. There is beauty and searing honesty that I fear might easily be overlooked because the story begins one way. But I trust the more discerning viewers will find something worth pondering over.
Mary Queen of Scots (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★
It is true that a film can be savagely historically inaccurate but still remain entertaining. A good example is “Mary Queen of Scots,” based on the book “Queen of Scots: The True Life of Mary Stuart” by John Guy and written for the screen by Beau Willimon, proud—as it should be—of its endless parade of beautiful imagery despite monarchs becoming increasingly miserable throughout its duration. Those seeking for a history lesson, or reminder, should opt to sit through a documentary instead because the picture wishes to present political intrigue first and facts second. And there is nothing wrong with that.
The work is propelled by strong performances: Saoirse Ronan as the titular character who returns to Scotland following her husbands death whose goal, she claims, is to bring peace to her home country. At the same time she hopes to reclaim the throne from her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I, ruler of England and Ireland. The latter is played by Margot Robbie and it is quite fascinating that although she is on screen far less than her counterpart, she nails every scene with verve and bravado—as expected from consummate performer. On the other hand, Ronan’s face is nearly in every scene but her overall sense of being is so luminous that I could not get enough of it. She is so regal not just in the way she stands, or walks, or talks but also in the way she breathes and pauses, how she looks at another depending on the gravity of a scene.
The premise hints at a war between Mary and Elizabeth, but I enjoyed that the material is willing to go in surprising directions. Although it leans toward Mary’s camp—appropriate given that the story is about her beauty, youth, bravery, and fierce intelligence—Elizabeth is not painted as a monster. Instead, it makes a point that she, like Mary, is a tragic figure. She is called a queen but in many ways she is a prisoner of her kingdom, her people, and her own expectations. We see Mary and also Elizabeth but the latter is perceived through the scope of a broken mirror. It is amazing that the subjects appear on screen only once but a good amount of drama is excavated nonetheless.
I found it curious that not once did I feel sorry the two women—which I think may be one of the points that director Josie Rourke wishes to come across. Melodrama is kept at a minimum; when sad occurrences unfold, the score, for the most part, is not there to manipulate our emotions. There is an air of detachment, a matter-of-fact telling of what happened. I do think, however, that we are supposed to appreciate the cousins’ desperation, whether it be to prove themselves worthy of the power they are handed (or claimed) despite and because of their gender.
Notice the more uncomfortable moments when men of lower rank address their queen as if she were a common whore. These are moments when we are jolted into paying attention. At times the women’s restraint is admirable; we become convinced that they have had considerable experience in leading their nations prior to the timeline of this particular story.
“Mary Queen of Scots” requires patience and an open mind. Its pacing is deliberately slow but effective—until the final fifteen to twenty minutes when it rushes to finish line for no compelling reason other than to meet the two-hour mark. I would have preferred a work closer to two-and-a-half or perhaps even three hours as long as it is able to maintain its rhythm and momentum. When unhurried, I was most invested in its world of political chess.
Violet & Daisy (2011)
★ / ★★★★
Violet (Alexis Bledel) and Daisy (Saoirse Ronan) are a pair of teenage assassins and best friends who live together. They are supposed to have time off but after seeing a magazine advert which features their idol’s new fashion line, they accept a job offer to earn enough money to purchase a dress. However, their latest hit is unlike anyone they have encountered prior: he wants to get killed and, preferably, as soon as possible.
Written and directed by Geoffrey Fletcher, “Violet & Daisy” attempts to create a contrast by embracing the messy and the saccharine, in terms of the violence inflicted by the girls and their innocence, respectively, but it does not work because the characters are vapid. There is more emphasis on the supposedly cool thing put on the screen rather than a true careful attention to detail—a slow burn study of two girls who, while on the job, experience a fissure in what appears to be a close friendship.
The razzmatazz of the visuals distracts more than entertains. While some work beautifully, like Violet standing on a pile of corpses on the bathtub while taking a shower, scenes involving shootouts are boring, predictable, and pointless. The point-and-shoot approach gets tired real quick when guns are the only weapons used to kill. This might not have been a problem if the material suggested that violence was not meant to be fun or enjoyable. Clearly, with so much effort and energy put into how a person should be shot, what we are supposed to take pleasure in is seeing bullets immobilizing a target.
The acting is clunky and forced. While Ronan and Bledel acting like really young girls made me somewhat uncomfortable—and perhaps that is the point—the one-note acting from the latter is most frustrating. Bledel’s delivery often falls flat especially when her character is supposed to exude a certain level of menace. When those moments come around, as hard as I tried to get into it, I kept noticing a performer who has memorized her lines well. What is missing is the necessary emotion—a precise thunder of angst—to allow the scene to blossom and make it believable.
James Gandolfini, playing their curious target, stands head and shoulders above the leads. He is the only one who seems to have a complete idea about the type of character he is playing. He can have his eyes closed and still deliver intensity. I sensed more danger with his character than I did the two assassins. Halfway through, I wondered if the picture might have been stronger if it had been told through his point of view. There seems to be a lot going through his head even when he is just sitting on a chair and reading the newspaper.
On top of performances that leave a whole lot to be desired, the screenplay does not provide the lead characters with appropriate depth. “Violet & Daisy” is supposed to be thriller with some dramatic elements. An ounce of complexity, in the least, is to be expected. As a result, for the most part it looks and feels like a knockoff of Tarantino-like picture that leads with quirky dialogue combined with a healthy dose of violence minus all the fun and ingenuity.
Lady Bird (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★
Those who’ve grown up poor will likely find more than a handful of truths in “Lady Bird,” a strong directorial debut from Greta Gerwig who is known for starring as quirky but highly relatable characters in independent comedies. Here, our heroine named Christine (Saoirse Ronan), who calls herself Lady Bird in order to assert her independence, is an extension of the type of characters Gerwig has played, but she is also an original creation because the screenplay defines her needs and yearnings through her numerous contradictions, inconsistencies, and hypocrisies. She may not be likable all the time but she is endlessly fascinating.
A mother-daughter relationship holds the center of the film. It is appropriate that each time Lady Bird and her mother, Marion (Laurie Metcalf), share a scene, there is a fiery energy flickering underneath their interactions. Although they tend to point out one another’s differences—sometimes differences so superficial we wonder why one bothers to bring them up at all other than to incite something—they are more alike than they realize or care to admit. Notice that even when they agree about a particular topic in general, Lady Bird and Marion find one perspective from which they disagree which leads to either ferocious arguments or deafening silences.
Despite these clashes, however, the screenplay manages to underline the love shared between parent and child without coming across syrupy or soap-like. Relationships that Lady Bird forges throughout the picture may change but we are certain right from the opening scene that the title character’s bond with her mother, as dysfunctional as it is, will remain unchanged, for better or worse.
A stark difference can be noted in how Lady Bird chooses to interact with her peers in Catholic school. She is readily able to try on new skin, is occasionally vulnerable to what they might say or think about her, and so badly wishes to be accepted in some way. This is where Ronan’s intelligent performance comes in. Less experienced performers might have painted the character in extreme brushstrokes depending on whether she is at home versus school. Instead, as the picture goes on, Lady Bird’s contradictions begin to bleed into one another in a way that makes sense and specific to a character who thinks she knows it all but one who is actually just trying to figure it out as life unfolds before her. This is a story about a teenager about to learn how it is like to put on the mask of being a young adult.
Moving at a breezy pace with numerous snappy dialogue, the picture has a certain glow about it that makes one think of coming-of-age movies from the ‘70s. Strip away references to September 11 terrorist attacks, Alanis Morissette playing on the radio, and bulky cell phones, the story could have been set in any decade post-‘60s. The writer-director’s goal might have been to create images that would pass as if one were looking inside an important memory, events that have great influenced a person’s perspective or lifestyle. Or it might be the filmmaker’s attempt to capture a dreamy, sunny, suburban area of Sacramento. It works either way.
“Lady Bird” understands the hardships of being an ordinary teenager who yearns for more—more love, more acceptance, more money, more freedom. Captured beautifully is the every day of being reminded consistently, sometimes not so subtly, that she will likely fail to do anything spectacular or noteworthy. Yet despite an ordinary protagonist who thinks she can do better than those who have become merely byproducts of Sacramento living (“the Midwest of California,” as she claims), the writer-director treats her with love and respect anyway. Clearly, the picture has affection for young people.
★ / ★★★★
Eleanor (Saoirse Ronan) and Clara (Gemma Arterton) have a secret: they have been “alive” for over two hundred years. They are vampires and on the run from a trio of men (Thure Lindhardt, Sam Riley, Uri Gavriel) who appear to know what they are. With a fresh corpse lying face down in their apartment, Eleanor and Clara escape to a seaside town. The plan is to allow enough time for their trail to cool off and earn enough money before they move to a more secure location. Meanwhile, Eleanor gets the attention of Frank (Caleb Landry Jones), a waiter she meets after playing a beautiful melody on the piano.
“Byzantium,” based on a play by Moira Buffini and directed by Neil Jordan, is acted quite exquisitely but it is a trial to sit through. Its look and feel is quite somber, heavy on the eyes with dark shades of red and occasionally poorly lit indoors, so the molasses slow pacing does not do it any favor. Though a much needed adrenaline surges through its veins in the third act, it is too late. I long ceased to care about the figures sulking about on screen.
Part of the reason why it does not work involves the execution of the so-called attraction between Eleanor and Frank. While the actors look good together at times, the dialogue feels too much like a play. They give each other plenty of longing glances but what they have is not allowed to evolve into something interesting. The script is stuck on one idea only different words are utilized to communicate the same thing. As a result, the passion is barely an ember. The relationship needs to be scorching hot—to be a bit more exaggerated—and readily able to move forward at right time so the film demands the attention consistently.
It is plagued with one dimensional characters—somewhat of a surprise because the story jumps between the past and the present which means that it has more of a chance to show certain characters on a deeper level. Clara should have been the most complex. We see her having a difficult background but there is no bridge between she and us. Therefore, it is difficult to care what for what she values. Instead, she is reduced to looking sexy without actually being sexy. This is from the director who helmed the effortlessly seductive “Interview with the Vampire: The Vampire Chronicles.”
The three men on the hunt for the two women are boring. A discussion about rules that must be adhered to—yada yada yada—remain so vague that it is frustrating to follow. In addition, their methods appear so ordinary during the first half. In the third act, however, elements of camp are introduced. Is this intentional? An act of desperation because halfway through the director realized that the majority of the picture is soporific? How are we supposed to swallow what is happening when the tone is suddenly schizophrenic? It was a mess; it could not end any sooner.
When the picture has nothing to say—which is often—the melancholy piano comes to the rescue and attempts to fill in the empty moments. Clearly what we have here is a screenplay that fails to connect and translate a play onto celluloid.
★★★★ / ★★★★
“Brooklyn,” based on the screenplay by Nick Hornby and directed by John Crowley, is able to capture a specific immigrant experience so successfully, just about every moment is honest, yearning, and earned. The story will connect strongest with those who, like myself, have gone through the need to adapt to another place, another land, another way of life.
It could have been just another story of a young, naive girl who moved to America from Ireland and encountered individuals who looked down on her because she seemed provincial. Instead, the material is full of life, dimension, colors, feelings, and thoughts exactly because the writing takes on a humanist approach. It treats the characters like the complex humans that they are. The picture inspires the viewer to read Colm Tóibín’s novel of the same name because the details are so rich, we want to know more about everybody on screen.
Notice the screenplay’s fresh choices in terms of drawing the characters. The two girls we meet at a boarding house is an excellent example. The moment we meet them, we are meant to judge them rather harshly. Their clothes are flashy. They giggle a lot. They put on a lot of makeup and the every strand of hair is perfectly groomed. Their chosen topics of conversations point to the idea that maybe they are not particularly intelligent. We make the assumption that these girls are vapid, shallow, and mean—we are certain they will give Eilis (Saoirse Ronan), our protagonist, a difficult time during her already challenging transition.
Sometimes first impressions are most misleading. I loved that the two girls look and act like they do yet they are capable of kindness and are able to laugh at themselves. Over time, even though these are two tertiary characters, we realize something potentially important about them: perhaps they remember not being completely comfortable in a new world—which does not have to be a new country necessarily—where at times you are only as good as how others choose to perceive you, which is usually through the way you look.
The film excels in showing the details of a most heartfelt romantic connection. Saoirse Ronan and Emory Cohen, the latter playing an Italian who likes Irish girls, share chemistry that is so potent, so magnetic, I was reminded of the very first time I met Celine and Jesse in Richard Linklater’s “Before Sunset.” Each moment that Eilis and Tony share is one to be relished. Together, they have a way of communicating a sensual feeling by simply conversing, whether it be during an intimate dinner or walking down the street where life, noise, and hustle and bustle create a dance.
It is rare when a film shows human characters simply being human. We are complex creatures and yet today’s mainstream pictures have a way of reducing us to caricatures. Not here. It understands what makes people interesting and so we can see ourselves, if we look closely enough, in just about every single character, not just one. And that is one of the goals of moviemaking: To allow audiences across the globe to try on different shoes, to become more aware of different cultures, lifestyles, and experiences, to open our eyes and realize that sometimes we are more connected than we and others have allowed ourselves to believe.
Host, The (2013)
★ / ★★★★
A perfect world now exists because of extraterrestrial beings who have taken over the planet via controlling people’s bodies. Meanwhile, humans who managed to escape the main invasion are continually on the run. When Melanie (Saoirse Ronan) plunges to her death, her body is taken to the infirmary. An alien called Wanderer, just about the size of one’s palm, is put inside her. But Melanie is an anomaly. Instead of her mind and body being completely taken over by the parasite, she remains to have some control. Wanderer cannot help but be fascinated by the human experience despite the fact that it is assigned to go through her host’s memory in order to discover the rebels’ hideout.
“The Host,” based on the novel by Stephenie Meyer, falls into the trappings of syrupy romance despite the fact that its universe offers a whole lot more than dealing with trivial problems like being torn between two boys. Since its approach is small when the bigger picture demands to be explored, the majority of the picture ends up being a bore, mostly taking place in a cave where there is in-fighting. It does not warrant two hours of our time.
The protagonist lacks depth. The screenplay has not found a way to circumvent the fact that since Melanie’s body is split into having two minds, every thought she has is expressed–whether it be the original Melanie or the alien’s. As a result, the lack of subtlety makes the character one-dimensional when she really should be the most complex. Ronan tries to make the most out of the role, but she really cannot do much other than look sad or robotic depending on the situation.
There is a lack of a detestable villain. The Seeker (Diane Kruger) is potentially interesting in the beginning. Kruger plays her to be very calculating and cold. However, once the hunt for Melanie’s body begins, we see her mostly driving a helicopter, a car, or shooting at people. Later in the film, she changes a little bit (prior to going under the knife) but I had a difficult time believing the charade due to the absence of a believable, smooth character arc. Many changes within the characters seem to occur on a whim which is at times confusing–or just very poorly written.
The flashbacks are corny and elementary. One of the things that bother me in the movies is when I sense that characters are being introduced as if we were watching a parade. The flashbacks employ this approach and so when events are supposed to be sweet or emotional, I caught myself snickering at the mawkishness of the scene.
Based on the screenplay and directed by Andrew Niccol, “The Host” offers some neat images like a field of wheat grown inside a massive cave, but pretty images do not save the material from a deficiency of ambition or even a sense of very energetic fun. For the most part, one will find himself waiting for something to happen. When it finally does, the rewards are few and unfulfilling.
Way Back, The (2010)
★★ / ★★★★
Janusz (Jim Sturgess) was suspected of being a spy against the Russian government during World War II but there was a lack of evidence against him. When his wife was captured and tortured, she felt she had no other choice but to tell lies in order to survive. As a result, Janusz was sent to a Siberian labor camp for twenty years. Inside, he met seven others (Ed Harris, Colin Farrell, Dragos Bucur, Alexandru Potocean, Mark Strong, Sebastian Urzendowsky, Gustaf Skarsgård) who where willing to escape and traverse thousands of miles through Siberia, the Gobi Desert, and the Himalayas. Based on the book “The Long Walk: The True Story of a Trek to Freedom” by Slavomir Rawicz, there was no denying that what the POW had been through was unimaginable, but I wasn’t convinced that the film matched the greatness of the material they had a chance to work with. It was expected that Sturgess, Harris, and Farrell’s characters were given a solid amount of screen time. We learned about where they came from and what was important to them. However, I kept wondering about the other men. Since the spotlight was rarely on them, we only knew them through surface characteristics. For instance, the tall one liked to cook and draw, the young one had night blindness, the other was a comedian. It may sound disrespectful but such is a consequence of filmmakers focusing on which celebrities ought to receive more screen time than others instead of focusing on the drive of each man. Given that it was over two hours long, there was no excuse for a lack of character development. Furthermore, as a whole, the entire journey felt depressing instead of inspiring. While not all of them made it to the very end, I believe what should have been highlighted was their bravery by standing up against a government that wrongly accused them of crimes and taking their lives to survive in the wilderness. The only time when I felt the movie had some sort of pulse was when the runaways met the young Irena (Saoirse Ronan). Ronan’s acting was dynamic. The way her body language and facial expressions changed from one emotion to the next, especially while interacting with the veteran Harris, felt effortless and I quickly became enthralled and fascinated by Irena. But the picture, inevitably, had to go back to the long walk to India. I was consistently disappointed due to its lack of attention in truly immersing our senses with each environment. Instead of taking the meditative path and not merely relying on music to nudge us that what we were seeing was visually majestic, it treated the disparate environs as cheap obstacles. I might as well have been playing “Super Mario” on Wii and it would have been far more engaging. Once the obstacle had been surmounted, it was onto the next challenge and the next death. Directed by Peter Weir, the manner in which “The Way Back” unfolded felt like the its characters were walking in circles. Considering its story involved a great journey across the world, it ended up going nowhere.
★★ / ★★★★
Hanna (Saoirse Ronan) and her father (Eric Bana), a former CIA agent, had been living in isolation in the snowy mountains of Europe. Hanna was trained to defend herself, to always be alert, and to never trust anyone. But the reason for their preparation was unknown to us. When the two finally revealed their location using a tracker, Marissa (Cate Blanchett), a CIA operative, was given the case because she was willing to do whatever necessary to assissinate the sixteen-year-old girl. “Hanna” had all of the elements of a film I would immediately love despite its less significant flaws. Unfortunately, it failed to explore its characters in a meaningful way so that we would care more about what would happen to them when placed in a situation where a small mistake could cost them their lives. For example, Erik, Hanna’s father, seemed to have a past which involved Marissa when she was still an active agent in the field. But the bond between the two opposing sides was never under a magnifying glass. Instead, there was one flashback designed to explain it all. I thought the writers were confused about the notion of subtlety versus keeping its audiences in the dark for the sake of mystery. When Erik and Marissa were finally in the same room after years of not seeing each other, there was, without a doubt, genuine tension. However, it was because the technical aspects, like editing and camera angles, were so strong. It wasn’t because we fully understood their history and the possible repercussions if one of them received a bullet in the head. There was also a strand that involved Hanna meeting Sophie (Jessica Barden), a hilarious and outspoken girl who traveled with her family (Olivia Williams, Jason Flemyng, Aldo Maland), and how the two eventually became friends. The things Hanna and Sophie went through, like spending time with handsome Spanish boys in motorcycles, were typical coming-of-age elements designed to explore Hanna’s capacity for humanity, despite being a killing machine, and the childhood she never had a chance to cherish. It was effective in its own way because we had a chance to see Hanna laugh and, in small dosages, experience emotions outside of her training. Unfortunately, Hanna had to go back to reality and face the woman who wanted to kill her. Blanchett sported a great haircut and creepy compulsions, but I wish she was given the chance to really show the monster behind her composure. Directed by Joe Wright, “Hanna” was not as rewarding as it should have been. I appreciated the risks it took so that warrants a slight recommendation. However, it could have been more engaging if we knew Erik and Marissa just as deeply as the title character.
Lovely Bones, The (2009)
★★★ / ★★★★
“The Lovely Bones,” adapted from Alice Sebold’s novel and directed by Peter Jackson, was about a fourteen-year-old girl (Saoirse Ronan) who was murdered by a child predator (Stanley Tucci). As years went by after her unsolved murder, the protagonist watched over her family (Mark Wahlberg, Rachel Weisz, Susan Sarandon, Rose McIver, Christian Thomas Ashdale) and the monster who killed her in cold blood. I’ve read a plethora of reviews claiming that this was a mediocre picture and was underwhelming. Maybe they expected too much considering Jackson’s power as a director but I thought the movie was above average. It felt painfully personal. I was moved when Ronan realized that she was dead but she was stuck between the real world and heaven. I thought it was very sad when she realized that her family was slowly being ripped apart after her death. Those dramatic elements worked for me because the exposition was consistently strong. It immediately made me care for the lead character because she wanted to do so many things in life. I couldn’t take my eyes off the fantastic imagery when Ronan lived in “the in-between.” I thought the images were magical, inspired and intelligent because the images she encountered almost always related to the things that were happening back in the real world. As great as the images were, I argue that they didn’t overshadow the picture’s emotional resonance. In fact, the imagery took the emotions to the next level. As for the villainous creepy neighbor, I thought Tucci was electrifyingly effective. Tucci excelled with his character’s eccentricities and the way he lured Ronan to her grave gave me the shivers. However, I thought the film came up short when it came to consistency. The last third lacked the momentum of the first hour and twenty minutes. About two-thirds into it, I started questioning when it was going to wrap itself up. Essentially, I think the movie would have benefited from a shorter running time. The scenes of Weisz’ struggle with the loss of her daughter (an emotional breakdown?) felt like it didn’t need to be there. I understood right away that everyone in the family was impacted by the tragedy so it didn’t need to hammer that point again and again. Luckily, Sarandon had a good amount of screen time to alleviate some of the seriousness by means of perfect comedic timing. If I were to describe “The Lovely Bones” in one word, it would be “misunderstood.” A lot of people thought that the CGI became the main focus and not the characters. I would advice those same people to watch the movie again and do what I did: ignore the fact that Jackson directed the film and swallow it as a “regular” film from a not-so-popular director. It may not have been as consistent as I would have liked but I thought it was able to deliver when it needed to.